I. Intersectionality at Stanford
Introduced in Kimberle Crenshaw’s seminal 1989 essayDemarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Policies, intersectionality purportedly accounts for multidimensional discrimination that other frameworks miss.
Crenshaw’s essay cites the Missouri District Court caseDeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1976) in which several black women tried to sue General Motors by claiming one of its firing policies was discriminatory against black women. The Missouri court dismissed the case because the intersection of race and gender is not a legally protected class under civil rights law. It stated:
“The prospect of the creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination, clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.”
The Court’s prediction proved to be prescient. This year at Stanford, activists highlighted the “unique” experiences of rapidly growing combinations of supposedly marginalized groups. Op-eds in the Stanford Daily and STATIC paint distinct narratives of oppression by juxtaposing various groups. One prominent op-ed in the *Stanford Daily *comments on the intersection between sexual violence and race:
“We must never forget that race and gender is only one intersection that is marginalized in the movement of sexual violence. Violence inflicted among people with queer identities, gender non-conforming identities and trans* women happen in day-to-day life, and institutionally.”
Other campus groups have highlighted supposed intersectionalities between (in various combinations and permutations) the environment, race, class, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and ability.
II. Solidarity at Stanford
Activists have also used the notion of solidarity to unite their communities. Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine — a coalition that advocates for divestment from companies assisting Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank — is composed of groups ranging from the Black Student Union (which linked events in Palestine to Ferguson, to the surprise of many) to Stanford Students for Queer Coalition. During the recent vigil against anti-Semitism, many speakers linked the Jewish experience on campus to those of other marginalized communities, as echoed by the chalk from the vigil in the photo below.The image below is among the most striking examples of solidarity. Designed to promote the (flawed) belief that “Stanford Funds Oppression”, the word cloud amasses many activist buzzwords and causes to weave a common narrative of oppression. It was used to promote an event during Admit Weekend that earned activists considerable condemnation. **III. The Combination of Intersectionality and Solidarity**
Intersectionality and solidarity are complementary forces. The Missouri Court’s analysis of intersectionality as a “Pandora’s Box” neglected to mention what happens as new “permutations and combinations” of allegedly oppressed groups are formed. Intersectionality creates new types of discrimination that can then be stranded together into a broader narrative via solidarity.
This approach captures the activist community’s internal dynamics. Intersectionality allows members to feel uniquely valued while solidarity adds a communal element and fosters loyalty to causes that may not directly impact a given community. SOOP exemplifies this effect. The coalition was composed of uniquely marginalized communities bound together in solidarity against common “oppression”.
With these principles, we can view this situation through the lens of signal production. Protests, chalk messages, op-eds and emails all constitute signals sent from the perceived activist community to individuals who are not major participants in student activism. While each cause and each new intersectionality may feel genuinely unique to those advocating on its behalf, solidarity between activist groups also ensures that outsiders will see it as yet another signal from what is perceived to be the same unified activist community.
In this perspective, the plethora of “signals claiming oppression” creates a Tragedy of the Commons where each activist action such as an op-ed or protest decreases the effectiveness of other activist actions. Activists perceive their individual actions to be optimal yet they unintentionally weaken the collective message. From a psychological perspective, *semantic satiation *helps explain why this Tragedy of the Commons occurs. Repeated repetition of a word or idea causes the word to lose meaning. Semantic satiation is especially potent when a word or idea is designed to invoke a cognitive reaction.
In this case, repeated signals of oppression elicit reactions of sympathy and empathy. A 2012 study found that empathy stems from the brain’s anterior insular cortex. Any time an activist groups sends a signal of oppression, the brain’s anterior insular cortex is engaged and empathy is triggered. Semantic satiation explains how each consecutive signal weakens the brain’s cognitive response to stimuli. Although most studies of semantic satiation have focused on repetition within a short timeframe, the same principle applies: repeated repetition of a word or idea will reduce its effectiveness.
The economic effect of diminishing marginal returns also explains the Tragedy of the Commons. At first, each action increases in effectiveness. Awareness is raised and discussion is promoted. However, past a certain point, each signal sent from the activist community to others decreases in effect.
Even members of Stanford’s activist community have implicitly acknowledged this effect for other concepts. In a recent op-ed on self-care — another “buzzword” — in the Stanford Daily, Mysia Anderson writes, “The activist culture is so inundated with self-care that I became completely desensitized to friends using it — begging me to subscribe to this abstract, vague idea, and almost meaninglessly scolding me to partake in acts associated with it.”
If intersectionality and solidarity continue to increase the number of “oppression signals” sent to outsiders, then the end result may resemble a Babbling Equilibrium. In this framework, the signals produced and transmitted from a sender (activists) to receivers (other students or the administration) would be essentially irrelevant. Two conditions must be met for there to be a Babbling Equilibrium.
First, activists would have to send signals that contain messages independent of the activists’ actual characteristics (in this case, the “oppressed” group they claim to represent). Although intersectionality has the potential to create an infinite number of supposedly oppressed groups, the signals convey a message of some form of discrimination regardless of the group. Therefore, the first condition is satisfied because Stanford’s activist community will almost always transmit a signal of “oppression”.
Second, outsiders’ actions must be independent of the signal they receive. Due to the effects of semantic saturation and diminishing returns, it is difficult to see how these signals could be effective in reaching other students once intersectionality and solidarity are taken to an extreme. The Administration is also not likely to pay close attention to activists’ demands, as referenced by the Board of Trustees’ refusal to consider divestment from Israel. Of course this equilibrium is just an approximation; students inevitably care to some degree what their classmates say. A Babbling Equilibrium with these two characteristics will appear as a result of the Tragedy of the Commons of activist signals.
In conclusion, both intersectionality and solidarity have some intellectual merit. However, their juxtaposition threatens to create a “market failure” where activists’ messages lose effectiveness. By continuing to utilize the rhetoric of oppression for a rapidly growing set of groups, activists threaten to unleash their own Pandora’s Box that will ultimately critically weaken their message.